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Niger in crisis

Julia Hahn / sh
May 27, 2014

Alongside neighboring states Mali, Libya and Nigeria, Niger had seemed like an anchor of stability. After a coup in 2010, things seemed to be moving forward again. But now a power struggle threatens to halt the progress.

Students burn tires in the capital Niamey during protests in April 2014
Image: BOUREIMA HAMA/AFP/Getty Images

For Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou it is a breakthrough. After months of negotiations the biggest deal of his presidency has now been clinched. On Monday (26.05.2014) French company Areva, which specializes in nuclear and renewable energy, extended its contract and also agreed to pay higher taxes in future for the extraction of uranium ore in Niger. The company is also willing to invest more than 100 million euros ($136 million) in the development of the impoverished west African country.

Protests and arrests

While the Areva deal may be good news for the economy, politically Niger is steadily sinking deeper into crisis. Last weekend some 40 opposition figures were arrested, charged with planning a military coup. "They have been calling for a violent uprising for months," said Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou. The detainees are said to include supporters of the Nigerien Democratic Movement for an African Federation (Moden) led by National Assembly president Hama Amadou. A planned protest march by opponents of the government was banned in order not to endanger ‘public order.'

Areva boss Oursel signs the new contract for uranium extraction
Areva boss Oursel signs the new contract which includes higher taxes for uranium ore extractionImage: DW/M. Kanta

According to Idayat Hassan from the Center for Democracy and Development in neighhboring Nigeria, "The arrests are intended to stifle protest in the country. At the moment, the government does not tolerate any opposition, be it from political parties, the media or students." More than 60 percent of the population of Niger live on less than a dollar a day. The country ranks almost at the bottom of the United Nations' Development Index. Frustration within the population is growing, says Hassan. They protest against corruption, press censorship and poverty, even though every protest is followed by arrests.

Escalating power struggle

Last weekend's arrests could serve to intimidate supporters of Amadou, says Sebastian Elischer, Niger researcher at the GIGA Institute in Hamburg. A power struggle between Amadou and President Issoufou has been raging since last year. Previously, the two were allies. It was Amadou who secured a political majority for Issoufou after the 2010 military coup, thereby opening the door to the presidency for him. But then, without Amadou's consent or backing, Issoufou joined forces with the opposition and formed a government of national unity.

In August 2013 Amadou and his party left the government and went into opposition. Amadou did not, however, renounce his position as president of the National Assembly. This, says Elischer, shifted the balance of power within Niger. "The president and his party have no majority of their own, they were dependent on Amadou's support and the new coalition partners cannot make up for this," he told DW.

Student protests in Niamey
School students demonstrated in April 2014 for better conditionsImage: BOUREIMA HAMA/AFP/Getty Images

Parliament is now blocked, says political analyst Boubacar Diallo in the capital Niamey. "But Amadou refuses to step down as president of the National Assembly. Now the conflict has become violent." This is a reference to an attack with petrol bombs on the governing party's headquarters in Niamey last Thursday (22.05.2014) which injured three people. In February, Amadou's house came under attack in what was reportedly an attempt by unknown assailants to kill him.

Who will be the next president?

These exchanges should be seen in the context of the 2016 presidential elections, says Idayat Hassan from the Abuja Center for Democracy and Development. More than 17 million people will then be able to vote for a new head of state and Amadou is seen as the strongest rival to Issoufou. "He is very influential and popular and has excellent ties to all political parties," sums up Sebastian Elischer.

In the 1980s Amadou was the personal advisor to Niger's military dictator Seyni Kountche. Between 2000 and 2010 he was prime minister under President Mamadou Tandja. Before Tandja was ousted in a coup, Amadou was regarded as his most promising successor. "He ran for the presidency several times but always lost. He really wants to win in 2016," says Diallo. Elischer fears that if the rivals allow the violence to escalate in the rup-up to the elections, that could lead to another military coup.

An insecure region

The borders between Niger and crisis countries Mali, Libya and Nigeria are porous. Fear of attacks by Nigerian islamist sect Boko Haram is growing. However, Sebastian Elischer thinks it unlikely that Niger will be overrun by Islamists or rebels from neighboring states, since "French and American troops have so far successfully prevented that." He points out that religion in Niger is under state control and has not been exploited for political ends, meaning that a radicalization of the population is unlikely.

Former allies, now rivals, Mahamadou Issoufou and Hama Amadou shake hands
Former allies Mahamadou Issoufou (right) and Hama Amadou are now rivalsImage: BOUREIMA HAMA/AFP/Getty Images

Hassan is less optimistic. She points to the many refugees entering the country. "They are straining the social fabric," she says. "Niger is very volatile so that external factors such as Boko Haram, Mali, Libya have caused a lot of impact." Hassan fears the present power struggle is laying the ground for fresh conflicts in the already instable country.

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